I’ve never been to Portland Meadows, yet it has become one of my favorite tracks in the past few years by virtue of its unusual commitment to customers and the live racing experience. Even when they don’t get things perfect, they make it up to the fans, as evidenced by this past Sunday’s “Sorry for the Long Lines – Customer Appreciation Day.”
After an estimated crowd of 6,000 overwhelmed the staff on Opening Day, track general manager Will Alempijevic set out to make things right for those that may have been exasperated by the inconveniences. When a track or business acknowledges its shortcomings it goes a long way toward building goodwill with customers that can be quite forgiving as long as they feel like you’re trying. With this promotion, Portland got to do something nice for the fans, while creating another big day and building more awareness of their opening day success. This is a track that has invested quite a bit in creating a positive on-track environment, shifting dates to warmer months and giving the Grandstand a retro-cool facelift, while sacrificing no small amount of simulcast handle in the process.
It is a bold experiment that you get the impression only has a year or two to prove viable. If you’d like to see more tracks making the live experience a priority, show your support for Portland by playing their races now and then. Money talks, and with thousands of races to bet every week across the country to choose from, why not divert a little bit of your action to places that you feel have the best interests of the sport in mind? They’re racing at Portland on Sundays and Wednesdays through January.
What Did We Learn This Weekend?
In the Whitney Handicap, winner Cross Traffic proved a serious threat for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (or perhaps the Dirt Mile?). Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man both were in position to win if they could but couldn’t sustain their moves. Cross Traffic set solid fractions and repelled them both. You might say he’s the top older horse out there if we didn’t have some with longer track records, like Game On Dude and Wise Dan. Meanwhile, Fort Larned might have proven that he needs the lead to run his best race. I was already thinking that early last week but trainer Ian Wilkes convinced me otherwise. On paper, though, it looks like his best shot is to set the pace and hope he doesn’t get too much pressure. The most surprising effort in the Whitney came from runner-up Successful Dan, who I expected to scratch after seeing him spook, toss his rider and fall sideways coming onto the track. It’s not often you see a horse have an incident like that and still run big in any race, let alone a deep Grade 1. He earned serious respect showing up like that.
CROSS TRAFFIC WON THE WHITNEY IN JUST HIS FIFTH START
Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
In the West Virginia Derby, easy winner Departing might not be the best 3-year-old in the country, but he could be the most smartly managed. He’s now a millionaire despite never hitting the board in a Grade 1 race. Only four 3-year-olds have earned more money in 2013 – the three Triple Crown winners and the Haskell winner. Departing has won two $750,000 races – the Illinois Derby and the West Virginia Derby – and was favored in both of them. While a lot of trainers and owners push for the classics and Grade 1 races with sophomores that are just a cut below the best, realistic folks like Al Stall Jr., Seth Hancock and Adele Dilschneider are laughing all the way to the bank. Sure, it’s probably a little easier to pass on the prestigious races when it’s a gelding like Departing, who doesn’t need to worry about his future stud fee, but it’s still a credit to those connections that they’ve spaced and selected his races for maximum impact.
In Saratoga’s Alfred G. Vanderbilt, always one of the year’s saltiest sprints, Justin Philip got a measure of redemption for last year’s unfortunate loss in the same race. In that running, longshot Poseidon’s Warrior drifted out in the stretch and forced Justin Philip into the middle of the track. Justin Philip came up a neck short and it certainly looked as if he lost some momentum when forced out. Sunday, though, there was no doubt who the best horse was. The favorite, Delaunay, couldn’t hang with Justin Philip and will get several months off before regrouping for Fair Grounds. Oftentimes those reformed claimers like Delaunay only hold their top form for so long and, even after a long break, it will be interesting to see if he can come back as good as the horse that looked like the top sprinter in the country while taking the Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
In the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, Lady of Fifty came from second-last and circled most of the field to get up for the win. The top seven of nine finishers were all within about five lengths at the wire, though, which tells us that none of these West Coast fillies and mares really set themselves apart. In this division there is Royal Delta and there is everyone else.
TV and Post Times
Horseplayers love to point to two important races going off at the same time as evidence that racetrack executives are idiots. However, there isn’t a major track in the country that doesn’t pay close attention to their post times and there is usually more to the story than many fans realize. For instance, players in the Fair Grounds VIP Gold Room, where I watched Saturday’s big races, where understandably going nuts over the West Virginia Derby running at the same time as the Whitney Handicap. It’s a frustrating situation, yes, but we shouldn’t conclude that the reason is because GMs and simulcast managers aren’t paying attention. Both races were televised – the Whitney on NBC Sports and the West Virginia Derby on several Fox Sports Net affiliates – and had to go off at specific times to fit smartly into their respective broadcasts. There’s no doubt that Mountaineer officials were aware of the handle they were losing running on top of the week’s biggest race, but we can safely assume that they determined the television exposure, and sponsorship dollars that often come with it, outweighed that fact.
Pinhooking at Saratoga
This is the most inspiring story since Rudy. Word is there’s at least one sharp horseplayer spending the entire meet at Saratoga on someone else’s dime. How? He rented a nice house in Saratoga Springs for the seven-week season for $12,000. Then he turned around and, with the owner’s blessing, found another tenant willing to stay there during Travers Week for $15,000.
Recommended Reading: Ontario as Bellwether
This outstanding Bill Finley column from a few weeks ago keeps coming up in conversation and rattling around my brain. The idea of government incentivizing racinos to increase handle actually makes a lot of sense. I’d prefer to see tracks improve the sport and their business on their own rather than by government mandate, of course, but for states where track owners are no longer interested in investing in racing this could be the future.
My Latest Favorite Tweet
What happens in Saratoga, stays in Saratoga. And to think that it was a Monday night.— Jose A Contreras (@LosPonies) July 30, 2013
Meet the Press
Memorable lines from last week’s NTRA National Media Teleconference:
Owner Maggi Moss: “You know, the rumor in this country is I’ve been through more trainers than men.”
Trainer Ron Ellis: “I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s a little bit of an East Coast bias in the media. There’s just more racetracks on the East Coast and more people riding back there so they’re exposed to the horses that run on the East Coast a little bit more than out here. We’re a little bit of an island out here, to tell you the truth.”
Ask Me Anything
If there’s something you’ve always wondered about horse racing but didn’t know where to turn for the answer, just tweet me @YourFriendJimbo. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll bet I know someone who does. I’ll tweet you back once I’ve got the answer and then I’ll explain in more detail in this space.